Emanata: Forward-Looking Statements

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The two Geoff Johns-written or -cowritten series that launched this week, Brightest Day and The Flash, both feature one of Johns’ signature tricks. A few pages before the end of Johns, Peter J. Tomasi and Fernando Pasarin’s Brightest Day #0, the story’s narrator is suddenly surrounded by visions of the future: ten panels, each drawn by a different artist or artists, and each showing one or two of the series’ principals in a situation that it’s safe to assume will happen at some point in the next year. (There are two instances of lovers-turned-enemies, one of frenemies-turned-lovers, and one involving a vast and legless trunk of stone.) Likewise, at the end of Johns and Francis Manapul’s strangely pokily paced The Flash #1, there’s a two-page teaser for a 2011 Flash project, Flashpoint, by Johns and Andy Kubert, involving “the past, present and future” and what look like alternate versions of Wonder Woman and Batman. As it turns out, there was already a Flash/time-travel/alternate-reality miniseries called Flashpoint back in 1999. So much for institutional memory.

Another kind of flash-forward turns up in three of this week’s Spider-Man comics. There wasn’t an issue of the thrice-monthly Amazing Spider-Man this week; we did, however, get a new issue of the monthly here’s-some-extra-stuff-guys series Web of Spider-Man, the one-off Spider-Man: Origin of the Hunter, and the freebie Spider-Man: Grim Hunt – The Kraven Saga. They’re collectively a big push for a storyline in Amazing, involving the villain Kraven the Hunter, which begins six issues from now in #634. Between them, this week’s three issues include four new Kraven-related stories.

The lead feature in Grim Hunt, besides quoting the only William Blake poem comics ever quote, is built around a cryptic, awful vision of the future; it actually foreshadows pretty much the same stuff that was previously foreshadowed in Amazing #600 last July. That’s followed by two pages of Michael Lark’s pencils for #634 (which reveal a major plot point), and a 12-page clip show of Kraven’s history, which also sketches out the evolution of Marvel’s house art style over the last 45 years and reveals exactly where continuity implants have entered the character’s story. Meanwhile, over in Web, Fred Van Lente is in the curious position of writing a Kraven “origin story” that’s actually yet another continuity implant, so as not to conflict with the Kraven origin comic released simultaneously.

Similar “here’s the story we’re going to tell you eventually” flashes of precognition have been appearing in other comics over the past few years–the final page of Batman & Robin #1, for instance, and the Brad Meltzer-written Justice League of America #0. It’s a clever narrative gesture (in a way, the title sequence of The Wire did something similar), and its use in serial comics obviously has a lot to do with the weird dynamics of the direct market, where everything has to be sold months in advance, and where individual comics’ success is correlated with how much they affect other comics. It’s also a kind of display of good faith from creators to readers–an indication that the creators have some idea of where they’re going, and that they’re planning to stick around long enough to get there.

In Johns’ comics, the teasers are there to sell one of the strong points of his writing: most of his big stories turn out to have been set up over the course of years, and they play out with comforting inevitability studded with just enough surprises to keep them lively. (Still, advertising Kubert’s artwork as a special attraction for Flashpoint seems to sell Manapul a little bit short–I like the way Manapul draws the Flash’s home town of Central City with the sort of ludicrously wide sidewalks and streets that Carmine Infantino used to draw in Flash comics of the ’50s and ’60s.)

The Spider-Man titles, on the other hand, may just be reassuring their readers that their overall story arc isn’t as far out of control as it often seems. Since the beginning of “Brand New Day” in 2008, there have been innumerable guest writers, bonus miniseries and specials, and backup features, and the mothership series has managed to stay more-or-less on schedule. But there are plot threads that have been left dangling for ages, and tie-in stories have tended to turn up very early or very late. The new Web, for instance, includes an apropos-of-nothing story by Joe Casey and Jim Mahfood that features a mildly apologetic editors’ note placing it before events that ran in Amazing a few months ago.

The most effective comics flash-forwards of the last few years were the two teaser images that DC released at the beginning of Countdown, and the nifty thing about them was that they invited interpretation rather than just anticipation. They were allegorical tableaux–and, in fact, the second one was inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” Precognitive comics scenes that reveal too much are like movie trailers that include all the movie’s peak moments; it’s already pretty clear from context what the plot of “Grim Hunt,” for instance, is going to include, and not many of the visions in Brightest Day cry out for explication. It’s good to have proof that the pilots of big superhero stories have a real plan in mind, but it’s even better to maintain some mystery about what that plan might be.

Want more Emanata? See all of Douglas’ columns here.

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